Bleak is the new black

Murderati Readers,

Please join me in welcoming Timothy Hallinan today.
Timothy is the author of nine novels published under his own name and several more under other names. His current series of thrillers is set in Bangkok, and the first two novels, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and THE FOURTH WATCHER, received rave reviews and were named to several “ten best” lists, both here and in Asia. The newest book in the series, BREATHING WATER, will be published (by William Morrow) on September 4, 2009. Hallinan divides his time between Santa Monica and Southeast Asia.

Two things mystify me, and I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about them.

First is the tendency of so many writers of “literary fiction” to assume that futility and despair are the primary components of the human condition, and to crank out books that end with symphonic stretches of bleakness, disappointment, disillusionment, and bereavement. Oh, and the corollary – the idea that any book that dares to venture a happy ending is Art Lite, not worth printing, and probably made possible by a secret grant from Hallmark.

Second is the reaction of people who, when they meet me and find me to be a reasonably normal human being without obvious scales or talons, say, “How can you write about all that darkness? Doesn’t it frighten your wife?”

These two things may not be obviously related, but they’re actually first cousins, at least in my mind. I write mysteries and thrillers. Mysteries and thrillers obviously contain dark elements – that’s part of what keeps readers turning the pages – but in the end, mysteries and thrillers are optimistic books, almost by definition.

A mystery or thriller begins with a world that’s out of order, broken somehow. The action of the book is the restoration of order, putting the world right again. Someone has done something terrible – how do we find out who it is and prevent its happening again? That’s the basic mystery structure. Someone is in a horrific position, facing overwhelming odds – how do we get him or her out of it? That’s the basic thriller structure. Both kinds of stories move from a broken world to a whole one.

This earns them the scorn of much of the “literary” world. Eeeewwwwww, a “happy ending.” Eeeeeeewwwww, formula writing. Eeeeeewwwwww, (dreaded phrase) genre fiction.

Here’s a secret. Both happy and unhappy endings are just literary conventions. Neither is truer to human experience than the other. They’re fiction, remember? They’re a matter of taste, not truth. Too many people in the lit-fic camp seem to believe that unhappy endings are somehow more realistic. They remind me of the film bores who praise the “realism” of black and white photography which, if color had been developed first, would strike us all as an interesting abstraction.

Ultimately, I think the basic problem is that the idea of an “ending” is itself a literary convention. In the real world, all stories are part of bigger stories that are in turn part of still-bigger stories, all the way up to the level of cosmology. There are no real beginnings and endings in life other than birth and death, and there’s plenty of disagreement about that. One of the things fiction does is say, okay, this little fragment of the story is the one we’re going to tell, which means it needs an arbitrary beginning and ending. We’ll put them here.

So what’s so unrealistic about the kind of happy ending we all experience thousands of times in our lives: the medical test comes back clear, the passing truck that’s in our lane at the top of the hill misses us, the person you love actually does fall in love with you? Is it more “realistic” to ignore those endings and keep writing the story until the cancer appears, until the wolf blows the house down and eats us?

I believe it requires a certain kind of valor, in a doomed universe in which all things are mortal and which is itself probably hurtling toward death in freezing darkness, to say, “This part of the world is broken or disordered, and it’s worth fixing. This wrong has been done, and it’s important to right it. This person is in peril and we should care whether he or she escapes it.” That’s what thrillers and mysteries do. They don’t claim to make the entire world whole and perfect, just to fix one little part that’s gone wrong.

When they don’t, people notice and react. In my first Bangkok book, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, the story of one of the characters that readers liked most comes to an equivocal end. I got almost 350 e-mails and letters about that character from people who wanted to learn what happened to him. Nobody wrote about any of the people whose stories were tied up satisfactorily. In the new book, BREATHING WATER, I bring that character back, but I think some people will be unsettled again because the book’s story takes place against a background of deep-seated corruption and political unrest that can’t be resolved in this sort of book. (Or in real life, apparently.) So at the end of BREATHING WATER, some of the villains are still rattling around and will undoubtedly continue to behave in a villainous manner.

But the other characters’ stories – most of them, anyway – end well. The disorder in the world that affected them most directly has been resolved. And even though they know the larger world hasn’t been miraculously made whole, and that they’re going to get old and die one day, perhaps painfully, they’re willing to accept what they’ve been given, and to accept it with happiness. For now.

That’s good enough for me. I like stories like that.


Hey all,
Next week I’ll have two great announcements. Hope to see you then.

17 thoughts on “Bleak is the new black

  1. JD Rhoades

    I once saw Lee Child give a talk about the purpose of the thriller that really stuck with me. He was musing about the evolutionary purposes of storytelling, that is, what survival oriented purpose is served by humans telling each other stories? He painted the picture of primitive humans huddled in a cave, around their fragile fire, listening to the wolves and other carnivores snarling and prowling just outside that tiny circle of firelight, ready to drag them off into the dark and rend them to bits. Stories of heroes who kill monsters or lead the people to food and safety were vital to those poor shivering cavemen, because they kept them from just lying down and dying from sheer terror and fatigue.

    An anthropologist or biologist would probably laugh herself silly at that theory, but it makes a good point: People need hope, now more than ever. They may not live in a world where things get sorted out and good triumphs over evil, but they’d like to believe in it, if for no other reason than it keeps them from tossing themselves off a bridge.

    This isn’t to say that the happy ending sometimes doesn’t come at a terrible price. Sometimes the hero saves the world, or at least his little piece of it, at the cost of all he holds dear. But that’s an inspiration in its own way.

  2. Brett Battes

    Tim, excellent post. I couldn’t agree with you more. And I just want to say for those Murderati readers who haven’t read your books, they should.

    Tim is one of my favorite authors. And I’m not saying that because he’s a guest here and has become my friend. I’m saying that because it is true. His books are beautiful, even in there dark, nasty moments. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of BREATHING WATER, and was blown away.

  3. karen from mentor

    Hey Tim,
    Great guest post.

    I don’t think I know anyone who has experienced a full life without shades of gray between the good and the bad.
    Why would I want fiction that was any less rich and intricately woven?

    On the other topic ….

    I was once in a bookstore and chatting with a woman who just happened to have seen a blog posting where I won a 70 word or less story contest. My story was pronounced "evil" by the moderator. (which was pretty amazing since it was Joe Konrath’s contest and he can think up some pretty evil stuff)

    When she found out that I was the author of the story, she actually took a step back and said "But you look so nice! How could you write something that awful?"

    I laughed.

    When I got home I went to Joe’s blog and told him he was a bad influence on me.

    Karen :0)

  4. Dave Zeltserman

    As long as the ending is a natural and honest conclusion to the story, the author is doing his job, and the book can be a satisfying read. Clearly there are not too many happy endings in the noir universe, and some of my most gripping and absorbing reads have come from this genre. Clearly Cain would’ve been cheating if Double Indemnity didn’t end as bleakly as it did, similarly Jim Thompson with The Getaway, Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, etc. And with Scott Smith’s The Ruins, as painful as the book was, as much as I was hoping for some sort of happy ending, his utterly bleak ending was true to the book. On the other hand I’ve enjoyed many mysteries by Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald and many others which end happily, or at least relatively so.

  5. Alli

    Tim, thanks for such an honest, well-balanced post. Your explanation of the difference between mystery and thriller is perfect. I loved that people were so vested in your book they wanted to know what happened to one of the characters – now that shows me your writing gets people so emotionally invested they HAVE to find out. I must go and hunt down your books now!

    JD, Lee Child’s talk sounds like it would have been facinatin – and it makes total sense.

    "As long as the ending is a natural and honest conclusion to the story, the author is doing his job, and the book can be a satisfying read." – Oh how true, Dave!

  6. pari noskin taichert

    I love this post.

    For a long time now, I’ve railed against all of these perfunctory dismissals of whole swaths of literature. You’ve done a great job of delving into that subject with both humor and thoughtfulness.

    Thank you.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I concur with Brett, folks, Tim is one of the best authors I’ve ever read. I’m 3/4 through "A Nail Through the Heart" and it has raised the bar for my own writing. Brilliant stuff. His characters are real and complex and they live in a complex world. When I find a writer like Tim I take it upon myself to read everything he’s ever written, which is what I’ve done with Jim Thompson.
    I love the idea that there are no true beginnings or endings, that we, as writers, arbitrarily decide the "bookends" for the chapter of life we choose to depict.
    Those of you in the L.A. area – come support Tim at his signing at the Mystery Bookstore on Friday night, August 21, at 7:00 pm!

  8. Derek Nikitas

    Hey, Tim. Great to see you on Murderati.

    You’re absolutely right that bleak endings are just as much of a convention as happy ones. This goes all the way back to Aristotle’s distinction between the tragic and the comic, and their different rhetorical purposes. Like happy endings, bleak endings say something–they’re a kind of rhetoric–political, philosophical, ethical–and they provide catharsis in ways that happy endings sometimes can’t.

    I do see what you mean about literary writers being often more bleak than commercial writers, probably because an individual writer’s sensibility leads him/her to write a certain kind of book, and people with bleak outlooks usually know better than to try to write a book with commercial appeal. Many literary writers seem to have nobody-gets-me chips on their shoulders, much like many commercial writers have nobody-respects-me chips.

    Still, mystery writing has a rich history of bleakness–the noir tradition: Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Goodis, Ellroy, Chinatown, most of Hard Case crime, etc. I don’t think bleakness is the purview of literary fiction exclusively, by any means. It’s just that noir writers are working against the tidy tradition of classical mystery–again,for rhetorical purposes–almost as an ongoing parody of the ethical and intellectual cleanliness of traditional mystery. For whatever reason, the dark parody has developed almost as rich a tradition as the original.

    Ultimately, I think it’s the complex (gray) endings that work best because they best outline the real murkiness behind the great themes of mystery fiction: identity, ethics, truth, justice, heroism, etc. Complex, ambivalent endings invite discussion, thinking, and complexity in the mind of the reader and between readers. My only complaint is that some readers are too quick to brand ambivalent endings as bleak just because they’re not absolutely tidy and happy. But happily-ever-after endings are just as disingenuous and emotionally/intellectually/morally unrewarding as completely pessimistic ones.

  9. Dana King

    Excellent post, Tim. It’s good to see you getting some Murderati love.

    I agree with everything you wrote, and have one other argument to present to the lit types who decry mysteries’ happy endings: does any mystery (or crime story) ever have a truly happy ending? Some writers gloss over the inevitably bittersweet ending of a crime story, since virtually all crime fiction deals with murder, the best the hero can hope for is some measure of justice or vengeance. Those who were killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of the murder, cannot be made whole again. There are satisfying endings, but the happiness is transitory, as you described so well above. Poeple will go on, and may be happy again, but they won’t be qute the same.

    For anyone as yet unfamiliar with Tim’s Poke Rafferty series, BREATHING WATER is, without question, one of the two best books I’ve read this year, out of forty or so. You will not be disappointed. Thise who have read Poke’s two previous adventures don’t need my advice on this count.

  10. Allison Brennan

    Fabulous post. I like my books tied up more or less happy. Bad things can happen, people can die, and the endings don’t have to be perfect, but I WANT the central story question resolved in a way that gives me hope–the exact thing that Lee Child was talking about. I don’t even mind ambivalent endings as long as the central story character or the reader has hope. (For example, Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM.) I do not like wholly depressing endings. It’s why I’m still mad at the Hollywood-changed ending of THE MIST (the original story had an ambivalent, but hope-filled, ending.)

    In FEAR NO EVIL, one of my main secondary characters was left in a coma. His medical condition had a lot to do with the emotions and actions of other characters in that book, and in subsequent books. But in the end of the book, I couldn’t just bring him out of it. I know, I know, I’m the author I could have gone back and edited the severity of his head injury out, but life IS messy and bad things happen to good people–s I told the hundreds of readers who contacted me about him, (When is Patrick coming out of his coma?) Honestly, I wasn’t going to bring him out of the coma, he was going to be there indefinitely. But then I had a story idea . . . also similar to a secondary story I had that I never intended to solve. My Kincaid Family has all been affected by the murder of their young nephew Justin. It’s a cold case, 11-years old in SPEAK NO EVIL. I wanted to show how one violent, evil act can change the lives of friends and family, including decisions they make, for years to come. I never intended to SOLVE the cold case. But I get so many emails about Justin’s murder–and no one even "met" him on the page. I have one story idea related to this, but I don’t know if, in the end, that old crime will be solved. But I promise the story itself will have a hope-filled and optimistic ending.

    Wow, this really is a great post Tim! It’s gotten me thinking.

  11. Louise Ure

    Welcome, Tim. It’s nice to see you here.

    I’m with Derek on the beauty of the gray areas and ambiguous endings. There are few things in life that are truly all answered/wrapped up/end completely happily. I like my books the same way.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Welcome, Tim!!

    And Dusty, that’s interesting what LC says about the cave dwellers (obviously I am on a cave story kick this week…) That’s why I love thrillers – they acknowledge how dangerous the world it but – the ones I love, anyway – give some hope for triumph over the dark.

  13. JT Ellison

    Welcome back to Murderati, Tim! Your guest posts here are always enlightening.

    I love ambiguous endings. I have no issues when a book answers most but not all of the questions, with few reservations. But one that I can think of off the top of my head that I didn’t like was Tana French’s IN THE WOODS. I LOVED that book. I wanted more, her writing is so capable and assured. But I felt like the central question, the raison d’etre of the book, wasn’t ever answered, and so the ending felt wrong, which spoiled the whole book for me. That’s the key, you can’t string the readers along with the promise of an answer, let them believe the answer is coming, then shear off in a completely different direction without even touching on it. Now, I know that book had an unreliable narrator, but the central point was so vital to every detail of the story, not finding the truth, as it were, was hard for me.

    I’d highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH to delve further into why we tell stories.

  14. Timothy Hallinan

    Whoa! Thanks everybody — really glad to see so many people weighing in on this.

    JD — I love the Lee Child perspective. Makes sense to me. And sure, happy endings, or at least non-unhappy endings, can come at a terrible price. What I get tired of is books in which the terrible price is paid and the characters are defeated anyway. This seems to me to be just as dishonest, although a lot less fashionable, than, "They all lived happily every after."

    Brett, thanks for being so amazingly kind. It means a lot from you. I think one of the best feelings a writer can have is when his/her work is enjoyed by another writer, especially one as good as you are.

    Karen, I think shades of gray are what we’re all after. Even characters in cartoons (good cartoons, anyway) have shadows. If the world we’re presenting doesn’t achieve shades of gray, there’s no depth of field, no sense that the characters are (like all real people) in some sense ultimately unknowable. The characters that I like best are the ones who remain mysterious, but maintain a consistency in the aspects of their persona that are revealed to us. I want to be able to guess what they might do, and I want to be wrong some time. If they’re going to come back in another book, I want to believe I’ll learn even more about them by reading it. And one of the reasons I set this series in Bangkok is because the black-and-white of middle class moral certainties get pretty thin when your children are hungry or your entire way of life is being threatened. I think there has to be a spectrum of possible actions, not just a digital right/wrong spectrum.

    By the way, Karen’s website is totally fine.

    Dave, I agree with you about noir, which I like enormously despite the shortage of blissful endings. I didn’t mean to say that I only like books that end happily — only that I dislike (a) lit-snob rejection of happy endings and "genre" literature in general, and (b) that I’ve come to dislike a certain "serious literature" sensibility that I think has marred some really excellent books. David Mitchell’s NUMBER9DREAM, which is the most dazzling thing I’ve read all year, ends in a way that made me so angry it actually kept me up all night — a terrible, bleak, tragic ending that’s literally imposed by deus ex machina. If Mitchell had created a happy ending that way, he would have been flayed alive by some critics, but as long as it’s an unhappy ending, it’s okay. Bleak is good.

    Alli and Pari, thanks for taking my back. Glad to know I have some company. And I also think it’s interesting that I had the most reader response to a character whose fate was left unoptimistically unsettled. As Dave suggests, there would have been no way to wrap a bow around his ending in that book without violating the reader’s trust. But that didn’t mean I had to turn him into skid marks, either.

    Will come back for more tomorrow AM — my brain is fried, Thanks again to all.

  15. Jessica Scott

    What a great post. It’s incredible that as writers, we continue to limit ourselves and are limited by others based on what people see in our writing. Thrillers are supposed to be dark and yes, readers who pick up the book want to see a world righted in the end, at least the main story issue. I read a book once that the ending left me hanging and I was so absolutely upset by it, I vowed to never read that author again. I felt betrayed that the world wasn’t righted, that there was ultimately no justice for the creatins in the story. Then I found out there was a sequal and all was right in my world again, until I finished that book and realized that, hey, the world is not going to be righted. And that’s okay.
    I think when I read, I really want a book that resolves the central issue. Books that drag out character arcs drive me crazy and so I stopped reading books by particular authors, even though at one point, the formula really worked for me.
    So as writers, we have to continue to write what speaks to us, regardless of whether it’s genre or formulaic and struggle to keep the reader engaged.
    Thanks for a great post!

  16. Timothy Hallinan

    Stephen — Thanks for the generous words, and you may be interested in knowing that your signing at Book Soup on the 16th went absolutely fine without you. They didn’t have the books, and you weren’t on hand. but there were lots of customers in the store and they all left looking reasonably happy.

    I will, however, be at my signing on the 21st at 7 PM at Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. (Thanks, Stephen, for telling me I got the wrong month for your signing.)

    Hi, Derek — great to hear from you, and I’ve pre-ordered THE LONG DIVISION. I agree completely that complexity is often the key to a satisfactory ending, happy or unhappy. I always have trouble with the various labels about mysteries of thrillers — I don’t actually know what a classical or conventional mystery is, and I don’t think it’s always (or even usually) possible to identify most good mysteries or thrillers by a category such as noir or cozy or hard-boiled or whatever. I think good books often have elements of different "types" of stories because that’s the territory into which the characters took the writer. These subgenres are good pigeonholes for librarians and bookstore owners, but they don’t necessarily say much about the specific books that have been put on those shelves. But complexity is a necessary component of any good writing, Having said all of that, I remain convinced that there’s a small cadre of editors and critics (and some writers) who believe that stories in "serious" fiction end badly. And not necessarily with much complexity.

    Dana, thanks for the praise of BREATHING WATER. Let’s start an Internet chain letter to get people to buy it. As to whether any mystery or thriller truly has a happy ending, I’ve certainly read some that did. But I think what matters, as Dave said, is that the ending — happy, mildly happy, bemused, unsettling, tragic — has to arise naturally from the materials and the characters. In the big picture, all happy endings are obviously temporary, but so what? Is it necessary always to write about the inevitable? Doesn’t that deny the actual experience of things working out, things being settled as we had wished, some sort of order being restored to the world and/or our lives? Sure, we’ll hit another bump. So what? Do we criticize photographs because they have a frame around them? Do we look at a wedding picture and think, gosh, too bad it wasn’t shot from further back to show the cemetery in the church? Or from 180 miles up so we could catch a glimpse of ethic cleansing in Rwanda? That’s not what it’s a picture of, any more than humanity’s ultimate fate, our little life being rounded with a sleep, is what my books, or most people’s books are about. There’s a frame. There’s a beginning and an end. Both are arbitrary. What matters, I think, is what happens in between. What I object to is equating bad endings, which I’ll define for the moment as an ending in which people are considerably worse off than they were in the beginning, as a requirement for fiction to receive serious artistic consideration.

    Alison, thanks for the compliment and yes, I agree that satisfying mysteries and thrillers do involve a resolution — not necessarily a perfect resolution — of the story’s central issue. But that can be as complex as any bleak ending. It can even play with the other conventions of the genre. In A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, which is the first Poke Rafferty Bangkok book, I wanted to show Poke that he wasn’t in Kansas any more as far as moral certainties were concerned. So I threw him into a case (two cases, actually) in which the murderers were innocent and the victims were guilty. "Justice" in this case is barely recognizable, even though the conventions are observed in solving the case, etc.

    This is hard work. I’ll come back and do some more tomorrow.


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